By Ron Kampeas
WASHINGTON (JTA) – Sen. John McCain, who made human rights and Israel centerpieces of his advocacy for a robust U.S. influence across the planet, died Saturday, Aug. 25 at the family ranch in Sedona, Arizona, one day after declining further treatment for brain cancer. He was 81.
The Arizona Republican spent 1967-1973 in a Vietnamese jail for American POWs.
He was defeated by Barack Obama in the 2008 presidential election. The same qualities that perhaps cost McCain the presidency helped make him a hero of the Jewish and pro-Israel communities. The robust interventionism that he insistently espoused, even as the chaos engendered by the war he championed in Iraq turned Americans off foreign adventures, included a fierce commitment to standing by Israel.
“A passionate advocate for American global leadership, Senator McCain rightly bemoaned those who favored a U.S. pullback from world affairs,” David Harris, CEO of the American Jewish Committee, said in a statement.
The American Israel Public Affairs Committee called McCain “an extraordinarily courageous defender of liberty.
“Throughout his congressional career Senator McCain stood with Israel because throughout his life he stood up for America’s allies and our shared democratic values,” its statement said.
“He was a tireless champion of the issues and principles that he held dear, from reforming the broken campaign finance system, to the effort to bar the use of torture by U.S. authorities, to his pivotal vote just last year to save the Affordable Care Act,” said Rabbi Jonah Dov Pesner, who directs the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center. “On those issues and others including combating climate change and strengthening U.S.-Israel relations, we were honored to work with him. And when we engaged him around areas of disagreement, Sen. McCain was always honest and straightforward.”
In its statement mourning McCain, the Jewish Democratic Council of America noted that he “rose above politics and represented his values.”
McCain’s grandfather and father had graduated the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., and he did as well and was soon a combat pilot flying missions over Vietnam. His plane was shot down and he was captured in 1967. Upon his release in 1973, he remained in the Navy and eventually became its liaison to the Senate, which is where he became interested in politics.
McCain won a race for the U.S. House of Representatives in 1982 and for the Senate in 1986, and since had been re-elected to the Senate. Two years later, Joe Lieberman joined him in that body and they soon formed a fast friendship. They traveled together countless times to Israel.
The friendship even earned a gibe from Jon Stewart, the late-night comedian who was both a friend and nemesis of McCain. “Someone ought to tell the senator,” he joked on the “The Daily Show,” “that there are plenty of Jews in Israel; he doesn’t have to bring his own.”
McCain thought seriously of naming Lieberman his running mate during the 2008 Presidential campaign. The Republican establishment resisted, saying Lieberman’s backing for reproductive rights would drive away conservatives, and McCain at the last minute chose Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.
“It was sound advice that I could reason for myself,” he wrote this year in The Restless Wave, his final book, describing the GOP insistence that Lieberman was a bad bet. “But my gut told me to ignore it and I wish I had.”
McCain in that election and subsequently was a vigorous advocate of using all means of pressure to keep Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon.
“I have to look you in the eye and tell you that the United States of America can never allow a second Holocaust,” he told Israel’s Channel 2 during the campaign.
CAP: U.S. Senators John McCain and Joe Lieberman place notes in the Kotel in Jerusalem, March 19, 2008. Photo credit: Brian Hendler